“My partner, Howard, and I bought our house in January 2010, but it was an absolute wreck and needed a lot of work. It was our first home together, and we were staying in rented accommodation nearby while builders made it habitable for us. We were very excited, and would visit every few days to see how work was progressing and plan our new life together.
“I got a call from the police to say the house had been broken in to."
“Just as the building work was coming to an end, I got a call from the police to say the house had been broken in to. We were upset, and it was quite annoying because we were so close to moving in, but we were also quite pragmatic – the damage wasn’t extensive, and nobody had been hurt. The burglars were caught on CCTV while they climbed out of the window, and they were picked up by the police shortly afterwards. They were only 15, so they were released after being charged.
“The first time, I’d managed to shrug it off, but the second time made me want to sell up immediately."
“Two days later, we went to visit the house and found we’d been broken into again. This time, the house had been vandalised and obscene graffiti had been sprayed all over the upstairs rooms. I was really upset – the first time, I’d managed to shrug it off, but the second time made me want to sell up immediately. I was convinced that the same boys had come back, and the house no longer felt like our own. It felt like all our excitement at creating our dream home had been ruined. Howard tried to reassure me, but I just didn’t want to live there anymore.
“I was contacted by the local youth offending team [YOT] about the young men who’d broken in… I already knew about restorative justice and the positive effects it can have on young offenders, so I asked for it straight away."
“Because we hadn’t been living in the house, making an insurance claim was a huge problem, and took weeks to sort out. The boiler had been wrecked by the burglars, and they’d ripped up some of the floorboards to get to the copper pipes.
The rooms they’d vandalised had just been decorated, so all of that work needed to be done again. Before we bought the house, we’d walked round the local area and talked to people in the nearby pub, and it seemed like a really friendly area – exactly the type of place we could be happy in. The break-ins ruined that.
“One of the boys wasn’t prepared to meet us, but the other boy – James – agreed."
“A few weeks later, I was contacted by the local youth offending team [YOT] about the young men who’d broken in. Both boys had been found guilty of the first burglary and had received community sentences. I already knew about restorative justice and the positive effects it can have on young offenders, so I asked for it straight away. One of the boys wasn’t prepared to meet us, but the other boy – James – agreed.
“James came from a troubled background, and he moved out of his parents’ house and went to live with his sister in Bournemouth while our meeting was being set up, so there was a delay while his case was taken on by a new YOT. After several months, they contacted us to say that we could meet him, and we took the day off work and travelled to Bournemouth. James didn’t turn up.
“I was shocked when I saw him. I’d imagined him to be large for his age – a really menacing figure. Instead, I was confronted by a tiny, child-like boy."
“At that point I started to give up, but the staff at the YOT persuaded me to try again. They had a strong support network around James, who had by then moved out of his sister’s and was living in supported accommodation, and they really wanted him to meet us. A new date was set, and once again, we travelled to Bournemouth. This time, James did turn up, and I was shocked when I saw him. I’d imagined him to be large for his age – a really menacing figure. Instead, I was confronted by a tiny, child-like boy. He was nothing at all like I’d expected.
“He was horrified to see my distress and realise that he’d caused it."
“The whole time we’d been talking about doing restorative justice I’d felt it was something I needed to do for James’ benefit and I hadn’t really thought about how I felt about the break-ins at all. My main aim was to make him think about two things – why did he think it was OK to break into someone’s house and damage it, and how did he think it was going to make that person feel? But the moment I went into the conference I suddenly felt really upset. It was entirely unexpected, and Howard was shocked to see me in such a state.
“The effect on James was even more profound – he was horrified to see my distress and realise that he’d caused it. I cried as I told him about the fact that it was our first house together, and that he’d almost made it impossible for me to live there. He hadn’t been charged for the second break-in, so I didn’t force him to admit that he’d done it. I did bring it up, though, and talked about how it had made me feel. He didn’t deny doing it.
“By the end of the conference, his remorse was visible."
“Seeing me so upset made Howard more determined to make James realise that what he’d done had really had an impact. He told James how hard it had been for us to save up the deposit for the house, and how we’d had to borrow extra money after the break-in made our insurance premium increase by several thousand pounds.
“When James spoke, he said that he’d thought the house was being renovated by developers and hadn’t realised that it belonged to a ‘real’ person. It hadn’t occurred to him for a second that he might be hurting someone, and he was shocked to be confronted with the effect he’d had on us. He was also genuinely apologetic. When he’d come into the room, his body language was closed and defensive – he was clearly expecting us to be quite aggressive. By the end of the conference, his remorse was visible.
“With restorative justice, there’s nothing to hide behind – it really made James see for the first time how his actions were affecting people."
“I thought James was really brave to face us, and I told him so in our meeting. Other people can tell you about the harm that you’ve caused, but it’s completely different to being confronted by the person you’ve harmed. For an offender, having your victim look you in the eye and tell you exactly how they feel is a wake-up call. It also challenged James’ belief that he was carrying out a victimless crime. With restorative justice, there’s nothing to hide behind – it really made James see for the first time how his actions were affecting people.
“For me, the process was much more emotional than I’d expected it to be. It had taken almost a year to arrange the conference. By that time we’d finally moved into the house, and I thought I’d got over my negative feelings about it. My motivation for taking part in restorative justice had been purely about giving James the opportunity to face up to what he’d done, so it came as a huge surprise to realise that I still had so many emotions about what had happened.
“It allowed me to put the burglaries behind me once and for all and start feeling like my house was my own again… I’m really glad I did it, and I hope it had an impact on James.”
“It started off being about my convictions – if you believe in restorative justice you really need to put your money where your mouth is. But in the end, it turned into something that was beneficial to me, too. It allowed me to put the burglaries behind me once and for all and start feeling like my house was my own again.
“It also gave me a sense of perspective about what had happened. Seeing James in person made me realise that crime isn’t always committed by big, menacing people who deliberately target you. Sometimes it’s just little, troubled teenagers who would run a mile if confronted. I’m really glad I did it, and I hope it had an impact on James.”
The RJC would like to thank Annabel for sharing her story with us.